Friday, March 9, 2018

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (2017)

I impulsively grabbed this book from a shelving cart when I couldn't find our library's copy of Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, which a friend had recommended. Both books contain foundational cooking advice: Ruhlman's is all about proportion of ingredients, and Nosrat's is about specific elements and how they are used.

The first half of the book is divided into 4 sections: salt, fat, acid, and heat. In each section she describes the science of the element and how it changes the flavor of food and gives a lot of advice on how to use it. This is all interwoven with stories about how she learned to cook, and the mistakes she made along the way. The second half of the book contains recipes.

Nosrat uses a lot of science to explain why cooking works the way it does, which in many cases was very helpful. In other cases, I got a bit lost in the details, but I've never been great at science. She tells us that the Maillard reaction is the scientific name for what happens when you brown meat and subsequently refers to the Maillard reaction every single time she mentions browning meat. Every time. 

I feel like I got a good bit of advice, much of it in the form tidbits, like:
- onions cook slower if something acidic, such as tomatoes, are present
- food should be salted as early as possible so the salt has time to do its work
- cocoa powder, brown sugar, and honey are all considered acids
- freezer burn and dehydration are the result of water escaping from inside the food and forming ice on the surface, so only freeze foods that can stand a little dehydration
- there's a difference between sizzling and sputtering (which would have been great to be aware of before cooking that salmon on way-too-high heat last weekend)
- meat should always come to room temperature before cooking so it will cook evenly (this seems impractical for cooking on a work night, but she says any time sitting out is better than none, so get into the habit of taking it out of the fridge when you first get home)

I also feel like I have a better understanding of when to use different types of salt, how to pay attention to the balance between salt/acid in foods and adjust as necessary, and just a better awareness of what's going on in my foods so I can be a bit smarter when cooking. The idea is to be less reliant on recipes, and I already feel like now I can take certain instructions with a grain of salt (see what I did there?) or fill in the blanks on recipes that don't tell me everything I need to know to execute them successfully.

I'm beginning to think of chefs and recipe writers the way I think of poets: prone to exaggeration and embellishment, and a little flaky when it comes to solid numbers. For instance, when salting pasta Nosrat directs us to add salt by the handful until the pasta water tastes like the sea. But she goes on to say she actually means it should taste like our "memory of the sea" because the sea's salinity is so high our pasta water shouldn't actually be that salty. The implication here is that we all have the same memory of the sea's saltiness, which of course isn't true, so we're supposed to salt our pasta water to her memory of the sea's saltiness level. This is not helpful instruction.

She also has some strong opinions about American Thanksgiving dinner with which I disagree. She claims the reason we pile so much food on our plates is because none of it is very good and we keep eating in hopes we'll eventually be satisfied. Those are strong words, and also don't make much sense. I don't know about you, but I do not eat less of things I like and more of things I don't like. And I happen to love mashed potatoes with a deep, heartfelt passion. I also found it VERY strange that at one point when she was talking about how to cook s'mores (another thing about which she is grossly mistaken) she mentions putting your marshmallow on a coat hanger. A coat hanger! Who the hell uses a coat hanger to toast marshmallows? It just goes to show how little she actually knows about some things.

There are no photos in the book, though there are lovely fun illustrations. This was intentional, as Nosrat explains, because she doesn't want people to feel like what they've made isn't as good as the beautifully photographed dishes in the book. While that's a very understandable idea that I can kind of get behind, I've come to dislike cookbooks without photos because it means I have to spend time reading all the recipes to try and envision the end result. I didn't have the patience for that and just sort of skimmed the recipes with only mild interest. Which is fine - I got this book for the more general advice, not for the recipes.

Despite some criticisms of particular aspects of the book, I gained some understanding I didn't have before about how cooking works, and enjoyed her stories about her own journey to being a better cook. I did copy one of the recipes (Glazed 5-Spice Chicken because I have a ton of Chinese 5-spice powder) and others looked like they'd probably be good if that's what you're looking for, but the real value of this book is all the general knowledge in the first half.

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